Saturday, 30 January 2016
Following on from last week’s article about purple prose, cadence – something many writers haven’t heard of – is something that writers aspire to but don’t always manage it, yet it’s the fundamental difference between poetic language and over-indulgent, flowery prose.
Cadence in writing is a sense of rhythm and pace, it lifts the narrative from the page and makes it dynamic; brings a certain tempo to the words and sentences; it’s what makes prose poetic, layered and fluid without it being extravagant. Cadence makes the writing visual and evocative, and to an extent, beautiful. It’s an important element in fiction writing, because without it, narrative certainly won’t be as effective.
Writers don’t actively think about cadence – they simply want to write and get the words down. It’s not until later, while editing, that they realise that a sense of rhythm might be missing from their narrative.
When poetic description works, it’s called cadence. When it doesn’t work, people refer to it as purple prose.
How Does it Work?
In laymen’s terms, it’s rhythmic writing. It works by conveying mood and meaning and emotional impact. It guides the reader to how the narrative should be read, and it does so by altering pitch, for example:
Sullied tears forged a path from eyes to chin; unhurried, where they lingered momentarily on the mouth as though to capture the light, while the golden band on her finger glimmered beneath the stark lights, an unbreakable reminder of what had been.
At first glance there may not be anything extraordinary about the prose, but if read aloud there is almost a beat to this; it flows and ebbs evenly, and it creates a certain reticent tone and sad mood.
Of course, it’s not just emotion or mood; cadence also helps to give the impression of varied pace, which can be quickened or slowed to suit.
How to Convey Cadence
It works when sentences are constructed with the right words, with effective punctuation, pauses and an understanding of the sounds that words create – known as sibilance. Sentences should be so smooth and fluid that the reader won’t even notice there’s a rhythm.
But it’s not just sounds or punctuation or pace; cadence is also created when writers employ other literary devices, such as polysyndeton, asyndeton, assonance and the aforementioned sibilance.
Polysyndeton is when a writer uses conjunctions close together to form a complete sentence, thus creating a slower, but rather rhythmic flow, for example:
Up and down and round and round…
The rain and wind and leaves and everything around them whirled…
Asyndeton does the opposite to polysyndeton – instead of using conjunctions, it omits them, leaving the sentence fragmented, which gives the impression of tempo and a quicker pace, for example:
Up, down, round…
The rain, the wind, the leaves; everything around them whirled…
You can see from these examples how they differ in pitch and rhythm with conjunctions and without. Whichever one a writer chooses, it lends to the cadence of sentences.
Sibilance is the softness of sound - usually the ‘sss’ sound - that certain words create when used close together, for instance, ‘the soft, silky sunset’ or ‘silent, the ship shifted through water’.
Assonance is the name for strategic repetition, which can also create cadence, because it naturally oozes rhythm, or a beat, for example:
The slow slow heartbeat of the woodland…
She turned, turned, turned...yet they had gone…
Always be aware of the words you’re using, even when in the throes of writing, and even more so when you edit your work, when you have the chance to add a sense of rhythm and punctuation and tempo.
You can also vary sentences – use short ones with longer ones, create an undulating rhythm, like the movement of the ocean, for example:
The colour of treason inked the assembled alabaster faces; carved elite in silent pose, their stern expressions rounding on him with disdain. Bold streams of fading sunlight found a path between robust columns, struck the marble floor with delicate patterns. His vision shimmered; an optical illusion in the heat.
His sandals were soft across the floor.
The right punctuation, such as commas and semi-colons or full stops can stress certain elements of the sentence to create fragmented sentences.
By combining many of the elements listed here, a writer can create cadence, something that would emphasise mood, tone and fluidity of prose. Done properly, the reader won’t know that the rhythm, pitch and flow of the prose is cadence at work, but they’ll read it and enjoy it. Without cadence, narrative wouldn’t be half as effective or indeed as beautiful to read.
Next week: Rewrites – Is there a right way to do them?
Saturday, 23 January 2016
Part 1 looked at some of the myths, or misconceptions, that surround purple prose, so it’s time to look at some truths – or at least realities - about this misunderstood concept.
It’s Down to Perspective
The plain truth is that it’s not as bad as people assume.
Assumptions aside, prose – purple or otherwise – is about individuality and perspective. Some people love the poetry and nuance of prose, others don’t. Some appreciate its form, others simply can’t see it. Incredibly, some writers don’t like vivid writing.
For the most part, it’s a personal judgement call.
That said, prose should only be colourful and descriptive for the important scenes, rather than every scene. So if a reader comes across some intelligent and wonderful description, it’s immediately labelled as purple prose, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. This generally happens because the reader doesn’t understand the concept of context.
You can’t please everyone.
Purple Can be Pretty
Pretty prose lifts the scene from the page – the reader can see, hear, smell and touch it. Choose the right words, the right sentence constructions, and let the narrative breathe. Purple can be pretty if it’s done correctly and sparingly – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have the odd dash of vibrant, colourful description nestled in otherwise boring beige narrative.
Without adjectives and the adverbs, the purple diminishes from your prose and becomes less noticeable, making the work easier to read.
Description Must be Vivid to Work
If prose doesn’t come alive on the page, if it doesn’t afford the reader any imagination or it doesn’t bring fictional worlds to life, then prose isn’t doing its job. It has to be vivid, to a degree, to be effective.
Who would be brave (or foolish) enough to assert that Shakespeare’s vivid and brilliant writings are just purple prose, that his works are chock full of fancy words, or indeed that his ornate narrative just isn’t plain enough?
The truth is that Shakespeare used wonderful, evocative description, he used fancy words because they were perfect for the scenes and he would have balked at the idea of plain, grey prose – all the things the dissenters say we should be doing, and yet they are the very elements that make vibrant description work. Any well written novel will have a healthy balance of dramatic, colourful and evocative description. Poorly written books won’t.
Purple prose is vivid; it’s just that it’s simply been written in the wrong way. Write it the correct way and you have pretty prose.
Purpling is for Beginners
Writers would do well to study Shakespeare’s grasp of poetry and cadence with words, because the real truth is that ‘purpling’ is more a product of beginners – they have not yet learned about the negative impact of adjectives or adverbs, the effect of overwriting or constructing overly complicated sentences. They haven’t discovered their style or ‘voice’. They haven’t enough experience of writing a balance between description, dialogue and narrative and many beginners are self-indulgent because they haven’t yet learned that writing is never about the self.
Ways to Avoid Purple Prose
There are plenty of things you can do to prevent your narrative from slipping into writing prose that’s just too elaborate, verbose or overpowering. By far the worst culprit is the use of adjectives (or a string of them). These descriptive words make already descriptive narrative awkward to read and overly rich. Description works better with nouns and verbs.
The other thing to avoid is too many adverbs. Along with adjectives, they are not as strong as verbs and too many of them lead to over-description and awkward, clunky sentence structures.
The other thing to avoid is self-indulgent writing. It’s not about you.
Don’t construct overly complicated sentences by using long, vague words plucked from a Thesaurus in the hope you’ll sound clever. Use words that fit the description and context.
Don’t overwrite – in other words, don’t string out the description of something over an entire page, when a couple of paragraphs are more than enough. There is a time and place for lengthy or more detailed description. Describe only the things you have to describe in key scenes, those elements that really matter, that the reader should know. Those are the elements you should show or exaggerate a little.
Always ask – is it too much? If so, pare it back. Description should be vivid, poetic and intelligent, but never boring, plain or grey.
Remember, description should draw the reader’s attention. It should never draw attention to itself. Brilliant, well written prose doesn't just tell a story, it conveys ideas, themes and concepts that stimulate and inspire the reader.
Next week: Creating cadence in writing
Sunday, 17 January 2016
In order to get behind the truth of what purple prose is, or the myths that surround it, writers need to understand what Purple Prose really means. The phrase is so often used – sometimes arbitrarily, and at times to the point that it’s misused – that it’s become synonymous for “flowery” or over descriptive, extravagant prose. This kind of writing is a turn off for most readers, since it overpowers the narrative and interrupts the natural flow of the story.
But one certain thing about purple prose is that it’s not that straightforward. There are a lot of myths surrounding its use, and what is actually is, so it’s important that writers should learn to recognize when writing is too melodramatic or over the top, or whether it’s just simply descriptive and vivid.
The phrase originates from the classical period, when the poet Horace described ‘purple patches’ tacked onto “weighty openings” and “grand declarations” within his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). The trend for flowery prose became very prominent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when florid description was the norm with the likes of Charles Dickens, Edward Bulmer-Lytton and the Bronte sisters, but of course, times and tastes change, and modern writers now frown upon the practice.
So, what are the myths behind purple prose?
Purple Prose is Bad
That depends on the interpretation of what actually constitutes purple prose. The name is a bit of a misnomer, and what one person thinks is flowery description, another might think it evocative or beautiful. It’s very individual.
Narrative only becomes purple prose if it is utterly filled with adjectives and adverbs, or the description is so pretentious that the reader might laugh out loud rather than be enthralled by it. Take a look at this example:
The wind gushed through the strong, tall trees with maddening harshness, and each golden coloured leaf wavered as though caught in a black maelstrom, which provoked the branches to shudder with a heavy sigh before whipping the leaves into the air.
This example would be considered flowery because of the ridiculous number of descriptive words crammed into the paragraph. This makes the narrative overbearing for the reader; it’s too much. But that doesn’t mean that purple prose is bad, since every writer has written something akin to flowery narrative at some point in their careers – at the very beginning, no doubt.
It’s all to do with the way it’s handled by the writer that makes the difference. Here’s the same example, but with certain words changed and cut:
A harsh wind gushed through the trees. Branches shuddered and autumn leaves rustled; the sound carried on the air like a hiss.
This example is it still descriptive, but because it isn’t overloaded with adjectives, it’s not flowery or extravagant, and in literary terms, this is not purple prose (although for those who still think less description is better, any intelligent description might be construed as purple prose).
The example shows vivid description, not silly description.
Purple Prose is a Sign of Bad Writing
Not necessarily. Purple prose is usually a sign of a beginner who is still learning, not bad writing. Beginners are not born with the innate skill and experience of someone who has been writing for 20 years, so their writing isn’t going to be perfect.
For many people, purple prose is a writer’s attempt at overcompensation – in other words, the quality of the story and the narrative isn’t that good, so the writer uses lots of descriptive words and adjectives to divert the reader from an otherwise flat, lacklustre story.
The truth is that purple prose isn’t that far removed from poetic prose, but too many see poetic prose or very imaginative description as purple prose and they don’t seem to understand the mechanics or dynamics of how it’s constructed, therefore they confuse the two.
For example, take a look at these three descriptions. Which one is purple prose, if any:
Example 1 - Rolling clouds billowed forward and smothered the land. The wind blustered across the hill, stripped leaves from trees and rattled fences. The bitter air snapped at the man’s heels as he made his way home, roiled in his wake.
Example 2 - The rain lashed against the thick windows with unceasing pressure so loud and hard that it threatened to break every pane of glass. Huge lightning prongs forged a pronged a silver path across the dark underbelly of night and lit up the hilly landscape with a startling purple-tinted candescence.
Example 3 – The sound of the surf sounded like soft whispers on the air, it soothed her, and she closed her eyes, relaxed, and rested on the edge of slumber.
All three are descriptive, but which one might be considered a bit over the top? Clearly, example number two is the one we’d consider overindulgent and flowery prose. The other two are descriptive in different ways, but they achieve a balance that prevents the description from becoming excessive and flamboyant.
Example two is something that is common from beginners – not because they are bad writers, but simply because they are not yet familiar with power of verbs and nouns rather than adjectives and adverbs, and they don’t yet understand how descriptive narrative works.
Writers Shouldn’t Use Fancy Words
Why not? You’re a writer, that’s what you do.
Why use boring plain words when a poetic or beautiful word might be better? Again, this myth – perpetuated by the (inexperienced) self-published authors on Amazon – seems hell bent on crushing creativity and imagination.
Fancy words have a place in modern fiction, but like everything, it’s how they’re used that matters. For instance, if you are describing a scene that takes place at night, how many times can you mention the word ‘dark’ or ‘darkness’? Well, once, because thereafter it becomes repetition. So you need another descriptive word. That means being imaginative with words, therefore you might use ‘umbra’ or ‘maw’ or ‘gloom’.
Or what about the sun setting, to create atmosphere? In this instance, ‘It was orange’ will not suffice. Show the reader the sunset and use the right words to describe it. You don’t have to state the obvious, but the idea is that you draw the reader’s attention.
The general rule is simple: you don’t need to be pretentious when choosing your words, however if there’s a better word, use it. If there isn’t, leave it.
Plain Prose is Better
Better for whom? The reader or the writer?
This is yet another myth from certain sections of the writing fraternity, who are under the illusion that plain prose is best, which is fine if you like your narrative flat, uninspiring, lacking atmosphere and has all the intensity of a damp mop.
Prose sums up the essence of the writer’s style and voice, their distinctive way of writing. We identify other writers by their writing styles. There’s no voice or uniqueness if the prose is ordinary or plain. That’s why description is a necessity.
Look at these two examples:
Example 1 - He looked into the distance and saw the sun set. He turned and left.
Example 2 - He looked into the distance. A blood-red disc draped the landscape in a warm golden glow. He turned from the last slit of light and left.
The first one is plain, it tells the reader. The second shows the reader. Neither is purple prose.
Plain prose is for writers who can’t be bothered. If you want to be a serious writer then use your imagination and create. Show, don’t tell. Plain prose suits some scenes, but it’s definitely not a ‘better’ option.
Purple Prose is Genre Driven
This is thought to relate to certain genres and their reliance on more ‘bosomy’ descriptions – in particular romance or erotic stories. Noir and chick-lit are also favourites for more colourful descriptions.
Romance in particular doesn’t fare well, what with ‘rippling loins’, ‘heaving bosoms’ and ‘throbbing manhoods’ and some really over the top descriptions of sex, however, it’s a myth that purple prose is genre driven. It’s not – it crops up in all types of genres, everything from thriller, humour, crime or horror.
The thing about myths is that they are perpetuated in various ways, so getting to the nitty-gritty is important. In Part 2 we’ll look at the truth behind purple prose – why writers fall into this trap, and ways to avoid making descriptions too extravagant.
Next week: The Truths and Myths about Purple Prose – Part 2
Saturday, 9 January 2016
In part 1, we looked at a number of essential prompts that can help writers, the kinds of things we often forget about from time to time when writing, but they’re aspects which are important to achieve better writing.
So let’s take a look at some more of these essential prompts.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is the mantra all writers should know, and at its heart is a simple principle: rather than telling the reader, instead describe to the reader, show them so they are able to imagine what you describe.
The art of showing rather than telling is all to do with choosing the right scenes to show, so these should be important scenes, key scenes; the kind of scenes that love description and hidden layers. And that’s what ‘showing’ the reader does – it gives them more than words; it brings the scene to life.
The idea of telling versus showing still baffles some beginners, so this example should help show the difference between the two:-
Clouds blocked the sun and shadows moved from the doorways. The remains of buildings lay scattered all around. Someone moved forward.
Another survivor, they assumed, to join the rest of the people sheltering from the bombs...
Telling is not to be confused with ‘info dump’ - that’s covered further in the article. Instead, telling is exactly that. The example above simply tells the reader the details. It does not let the reader imagine the scene for themselves. There is little imagery for the reader to work with.
Now compare the same example that shows the reader:
Lithe spectres, shaded by toxic black clouds that blocked out the sun, tip-toed from broken doorways, as though afraid of the silence. The blackened remnants of buildings lay scattered like strewn fossils ripped open by explosions.
The smoke parted; another survivor, they assumed, to join the sickly sack of bones that cowered in the shade; people who remained muzzled by the shrill hiss of bombs and the stutter of gunfire...
This example shows the reader what is happening within the scene, the description allows them to picture it in their mind; it gives them the imagery to work from to do so. That’s what showing is all about.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Wherever possible, cut down on the use of adjectives. These are descriptive words that are often unnecessary, but are added in volume by writers on the assumption that they will beef up their descriptions. The odd adjective here and there is useful, but too many make the narrative clunky, especially double adjectives, for example:
She stood against the beautiful and exquisite, gold ornamental gate, looked at the time on her diamond-encrusted watch which matched her emerald sheer satin dress...
You can see that this example exudes adjectives, and while it may sound descriptive, too many spoil the effect. Notice that double adjectives are not constructive – the second adjective invariably weakens the first. Best to avoid them wherever possible.
The same thing applies to adverbs. Adverbs are those annoying words that end with ‘- ly’. Words like ‘suddenly’, ‘adoringly’, ‘angrily’ and ‘furiously’. Writers make the mistake of using these in order to create an effect, but in fact, verbs will do that quite well. Verbs are much stronger than adverbs, so use verbs instead.
Consider these two examples. Which one is better?
She looked at him furiously, replaying the moment in her mind and letting the rage bubble momentarily before turning away angrily.
She stared at him, furious, and replayed the moment in her mind. The anger bubbled for a moment before she turned and walked away in a cloud of silence.
The second example is better - it reads better, it keeps the structure active, it’s stronger and there’s not an adverb in sight. For better writing, stick to verbs and nouns.
The reason we advise against using clichés is because writing is, without a doubt, better without them. They have a tendency to make writing look awkward and outdated. Things like ‘All of a sudden’, ‘it was pitch black’, ‘eyes as round as saucers’, and ‘as if by magic’ really don’t help the quality of writing. There are better ways of describing something – writers have to use their imaginations. And that’s the point of writing.
Only use a cliché in dialogue, if it is something your character might say. Otherwise, avoid them.
Don’t Info Dump
A cursory glance at many self published books on Amazon is full with info-dumps. That’s because writers make the mistake of thinking the reader has to know absolutely everything about the story in the first chapter or so. Huge pages of narrative – however insightful – are never a good thing, especially when all they do is explain a heap of stuff to the reader that can’t already be woven into the story anyway.
Info dumps slow the story and they can bore the reader. If you have to impart necessary information, do so in small, subtle amounts so that it is hardly noticeable for the reader.
Summary of the Essential Fiction Writing Checklist Part 2:
- Show, don’t tell
- Cut out Adjectives and Adverbs
- Cut out clichés
- Don’t info dump
Next week: The truth and myths about Purple Prose